Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

What the Terrible Eastern Ghouta Crisis Really Means

What the Terrible Eastern Ghouta Crisis Really Means
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

A living hell. Those were the words Antonio Guterres used on Monday 26 February to describe the massive attacks led by the Syrian regime and Russia against the Ghouta populations. 
Yet the Secretary General of the United Nations is not the most qualified person to hold a judgment on this affair, given that the UN has entirely failed to meet its responsibilities in the Syrian case. 

The tragedy currently unfolding in Douma and in other places of the East Ghouta was totally predictable: it was written in the evolution of the power balance on the field and is, to a large extent, a replica of the scenario of Aleppo’s fall a year ago. Surely, these two battles are not exactly similar: there are currently 400 000 people at the gates of Damascus while only a few thousands people were left in the last days of East Aleppo. The last combattants in Aleppo were only a couple of hundreds, while they are perhaps around 20 000 in Ghouta. The Idlib province was a potential refuge for the people of East Aleppo while there is no possible way out for the people of Ghouta. 

"The challenges for the regime are thus both strategic and political. In fact, as soon as it regained  control over two thirds of the territory (the “useful” Syria), the persistence of a rebel enclave ten kilometres from the presidential palace became unbearable."

Politically speaking, East Aleppo was conquered by rebellion forces coming from outside its territory while the Douma population is one of the first to have revolted in Syria. Ghouta’s combattants are children from the country, young people who took the arms to crush the regime, protect their families, flee from the circonscription, while some of them were of course, motivated by more cynical ambitions. They come from conservative environments, which played right into the hands of the islamist movement, and in particular Jaysh al-Islam’s, which dominated the local rebels front for a while. 

The challenges for the regime are thus both strategic and political. In fact, as soon as it regained  control over two thirds of the territory (the “useful” Syria), the persistence of a rebel enclave ten kilometres from the presidential palace became unbearable. Its spokesmen describe this terrible massacre as a “counterinsurgency strategy”, justified, according to them, by numerous mortar attacks from the rebel zone hitting Damascus on a daily basis. As well as by the fact that Ghouta’s resistance is led by armed islamist groups among which, Hayat Tahrir Al-Cham (HTC), affiliated to Al-Qaeda.

In reality, of course, the brutality of the treatment inflicted upon Ghouta’s civilians is completely disproportionate compared to the attacks led against Damascus. No counter-insurgency can justify systematically targeting hospitals and medical structures or starving entire cities.

"Behind the shadows, a real negotiation might emerge. A “surrender diplomacy” is actually taking place."

Under these circumstances, what are the odds of a “humanitarian diplomacy” potentially paving the way for a political settlement? Was not Russia making a gesture when it accepted the UN Security Council resolution No. 2401, which demanded an immediate end to the fighting and the establishment of a one-month humanitarian truce? Actually, no sooner had the resolution been voted than Mr. Lavrov, using carefully-chosen words - a skill his long experience allows him to excel in - made it clear that Moscow had no intention of abiding by its terms. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime pursued its offensive as if nothing had happened. Human losses amount to dozens since the resolution’s vote. However, summoned to pressure his protégé, Mr. Poutine has ordered a daily 5-hours truce in order to evacuate some of the civilians. Nevertheless, following a well-oiled scenario, the Russians and the regime are accusing rebel armed groups of sabotaging the humanitarian truce. Russian aircraft are part of the undiscriminated bombing of the civilian population.

Behind the shadows, a real negotiation might emerge. A “surrender diplomacy” is actually taking place. Through various intermediaries, non-jihadists armed groups offer to dissociate from HTC and to help its eviction in exchange for a real ceasefire and the return of their weapons, if they are allowed to preserve the local governance they have obtained during the revolution. A letter listing these proposals was addressed on Tuesday 27 February from the rebels to Antonio Guterres and to the Security Council. Similar tractations had been engaged for months, but with no conclusive outcome. 

Now, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. The ground and aerial regime and Russian offensive is making huge progress. Soon, nothing will be left to be negotiated.

What should we conclude?

  • First, “humanitarian diplomacy”, coupled with “surrender diplomacy” have suffered from the same tribulations during Aleppo’s agony. In both cases, from their position of strength, Russia and the regime were able to stall the negotiations, fooling the rest of the world into thinking that a humanitarian solution is within reach, while pursuing the extermination of rebel forces until almost unconditional surrender. Only then, as it was the case in Aleppo, will the humanitarian convoys flow in Ghouta and relieve the world from its guilty conscience. Another possibility is that Ghouta will by then have been drained of its population thanks to “humanitarian diplomacy”, rendering the final attack against the rebels all the more cruel. 
  • Secondly, there still could be, if they were willing enough, space for  a European and American action. Ghouta’s “liquidation” might last, while the triumphant march Syria has represented until now for Mr. Putin faces its first obstacles. What should we do? We should rally, at a time when there is no sign whatsoever of a coordinated move from the West; intensely engage in truce negotiations on the basis of non-jihadists rebel armed group’s proposal; invest in dialogue-facilitating means (control systems for instance); lead once and for all the battle of opinions; consider retaliations if chemical weapons are used again. 
  • Finally, democracies’ inaction will once again come at a price. Limitless victory from the Syrian regime and its allies would imply that no humanitarian “red line” can ever be drawn for governments waging a war against their populations. Such a victory would also mean that there will be no political settlement of the Syrian conflict. Is not this triumph of strength over every other consideration also the clear sign that from now on, the logic inherent to all wars is free from all constraints? This is what Ghouta’s fate truly represents for the West.
Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English